A Pleasant Surprise – Santa Elena de Uairen, Venezuela


Route Boa Vista, Brazil – Santa Elena de Uairen, Venezuela (BR174, 10)
Distance 234Km
Travel Time 3 hours + Border Crossing Time
Road Conditions Good tarmac, potholed 70Km to Pacaraima
Weather Warm, humid
Terrain Jungle-Savannah, Flat then hilly
Food and Petrol Boa Vista, before and at Border
Accommodation Pousada Monica, Santa Elena

Staying at the same hotel are an Australian chap and his Venezuelan wife, travelling on a Honda Transalp they flew over from Oz. They’ve come through Venezuela, so after breakfast they give us some tips on riding in Venezuela.

It sounds as risky as I thought. They tell us about how they had his wife’s family members help them map out a “safe” route through the country to get here. Their onward route is to head into the Guyanas!


As we leave Boa Vista I feel uneasy. I am not feeling confident about the bike. It’s burning way too much oil, Max has indicated that white smoke is emitting from the exhaust during engine brake, and the warning from the Australian biker, telling me there is no Honda representation in Venezuela, hasn’t made me feel any more confident.

We do another few cash withdrawals in Boa Vista, hoping that Brazilian Reais will also be exchanged in Venezuela at a favourable rate and off we go. You want to enter Venezuela with as many US Dollars stashed away as you can, because the government restricts the amount of USD locals can buy officially at the official rate (currently at about 4.3 Bolivars per USD), apparently to undermine the efforts of the country’s wealthy to smuggle their money out of the country and stash it in foreign bank accounts. This situation has caused the demand for USD to rise immensely, and on the black market you can get at least FOUR times the official rate! In Santa Elena de Uairen Brazilian Reais are also exchanged at a corresponding rate (about half a USD), which is excellent coming in from Brazil. But BRL are useless elsewhere in the country. UPDATE: There was a revaluation of the Bolivar beginning of 2013 and latest traveller reports we got is that the USD now fetches at least 25 Bolivares.


The roughly 230 kilometre ride up the BR174? from Boa Vista to the border town of Pacaraima is good asphalt until about 70 kilometres before Pacaraima, where it turns into a horrible mine field of potholes around every corner. It’s really irritating and unnerving, being on asphalt which gives you the confidence to accelerate to a good pace and then ambushes you with nasty bumps and potholes. Reminds me a bit of the BR317 from Assis to Porto Velho in Brazil, but much worse.

By the time we get to the border I’m irritable. I’m not confident about the bike. We’re crossing into Venezuela and there’s no Honda there if we need them… I just need to focus on the fact that we should be out the other side in about four days and we can get anything we need sorted out in Colombia. A couple of thousand kilometres with frequent oil top-ups should not be too bad should it?


The border crossing is simple. Out of Brazil it takes only minutes. Thereafter we queue half an hour to get petrol at a Venezuelan station packed between the two borders. It’s quite exciting, the suspense of being in this strange, new, supposedly dangerous country, about to get your first injection of the cheapest petrol in the world – how cheap is it really going to be? At 3 Bolivars for the half tank or so we need it’s not as cheap as we thought, but we ride away with a smile anyway.


The Venezuelan Aduana (customs) process, on the other hand, takes ages. It’s not that they are very busy or that there’s any problem, they just really take their sweet time about it. Great first impression!

More details on the border crossing procedure in this post.

We encounter some guy in a car driving by who’s offering to exchange Brazilian Reais 8-to-1, which is equivalent to 16 Bolivanos to the USD, so we exchange some money straight away. We’re a bit paranoid but it all turns out ok.

One dude comes walking by and starts taking photographs on Max and Erica’s bike with his phone. Erica notices and approaches him about it – he says he wants to show them to his son – but she rightly makes him delete them and buzz off.

To get our temporary import permit from the Aduana, a third party insurance (SOAT) is required for your vehicle. We manage to slip through by showing our Worldwide Medical Insurance with Motorcycle cover – not suitable but it’s in English and has the words “Worldwide Insurance” and “Motorcycle” on it. Max and Erica have to do the return journey to Santa Elena to get the SOAT though, so we wait for them at the border parking lot.

In the mean time a traveller pedals by on his packed bicycle and as we wave to him – looks like he must be Peruvian – his eyes widen and he approaches with enthusiasm: “Hello, my name is Lee, I am Chinese tourist.”


Lee is a fascinating character. Certainly the most hard-core traveller we have met on our trip so far. Starting on a planned five year bicycle trip in 1997, he since revised his goal and plans to visit every country in the world! Lee has been cycling for about fifteen years and visited 138 countries – incredible! He’s only missing about 60 countries or so, which are mostly islands.

For an hour at least we stand in the parking area as he shows us his photo album and relays some stories of his travels in the Middle East, Africa and South America – fascinating! His stolen bicycles in Brazil, and every time he was given a new one by some kind donor; his bouts of Malaria in deep, dark Africa; his disagreeable experiences with the border police of the USA, for whom he would not relinquish his dignity…. really makes you shake your head. A man of incredible courage! Completely crazy, you may say! 😉


Currently he is on his way to cross the border back into Brazil. He decided to buzz over into Venezuela for a while whilst the US embassy in Brazileia – for the n’th time – has turned him away for a while as they consider his visa application. The craziest thing is that he doesn’t even want to go to the USA. He has been refused entry into some Central American states, stating that he would be granted an entry visa there only if he has a US entry visa. How ridiculous is that?! Shame on you!

Ebru had to have a go on his bicycle…

Anyway, here’s Lee’s blog (Li Yue – I Sohu), but you will need to learn to read Chinese pictorals. 🙂

In Santa Elena we first check into Hostal Backpacker Tour (120BF/dbl). It’s ok but the reception only operates at certain times so it can be annoying. They make a nice pizza in the restaurant there, where we meet a nice South African & French couple on their way to Brazil to make some money after being robbed of all their savings in a hostel further north. They spent a long while working in the Roques archipelago and tell us about how wonderful it is.


However due to due a dispicable-attitude-event with the restaurant owner, who lives in the same building where our bike is also parked, we move to the hostel next door. Pousada Monica (120BF/dbl) is a much better option; the Chinese owner and the staff are cool and the rooms are clean and comfortable.

At first, when entering Santa Elena de Uairen, we are a bit fearful about our safety, but soon we are quite at ease and we find the place quite tranquilo. There’s an interesting little crystal museum near the centre, and the highlights for us are, without doubt, a fantastic little delicatessen near the Bolivar-Urdaneta crossroads: excellent coffee, cheese and cold meats and bread. Also there’s an awesome little Shwarma and Arabic food place “El Arabe” on the main road out to the border, run by a nice Syrian chap – portions you can hardly finish! There is a food plaza which is probably a required visit to get introduced to the local staple dish, arepa, if you don’t yet know it.


We change our money easily with one of the several touts in the town, getting 16.5 Bolivanos to the dollar. There are so many touts it’s like a big money supermarket, so I advise shopping around. Also a tip worth remembering: you can always pop into a (usually Chinese) supermarket or other store and see what rate they offer. It’s often good – everyone’s keen on a little hard currency around here.

All in all, by the time we leave Santa Elena de Uairen we feel it’s definitely a place we’d come back to.